Town-and-gown relations between Morningside Heights and its most prestigious landlord, Columbia University, have been famously fraught for years: No geographical juxtaposition is more likely to cause tension than a large, prosperous, mostly white Ivy League institution rubbing up against a large (and largely nonwhite) multi-ethnic community that struggles to survive amid blocks and blocks of urban neglect and decaying housing stock. Moves by Columbia to ease the prickly situation have as often as not been viewed in neighboring Harlem as expansionist ploys; neighborhood resistance to such moves has been viewed by Columbia as a self-defeating militancy that weakens local economic prospects as well as hampering the university’s inevitable need to grow and change.
Now Columbia’s trying a new, aesthetic tactic. Into a situation in which both sides are ready to think about repairing and rebuilding cordiality, the university’s Arts Initiative is bringing over world-renowned director Peter Brook and the multi-ethnic Paris-based troupe of his International Center of Theatre Creation for a one-month residency at Columbia, in partnership with Barnard College and the Harlem Arts Alliance. The troupe will perform Brook’s latest work, Tierno Bokar, unveiled in Paris last year to considerable controversy. A study in possible paths to tolerance, it’s based on the life of a Sufi mystic caught between rival Islamic factions in 1930s French Africa. Tierno Bokar is hardly an accidental choice of material for a time when, in Paris as in New York, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are at loggerheads within themselves as well as with each other and with the world of realpolitik that lies outside spiritual disputes over doctrine and observance.
Brook’s company, a patchwork quilt of artists from all over the globe employing a congeries of spoken and nonverbal languages, is itself a working example of what a less strife-ridden world might look like. Its past works, mostly familiar to New York’s more soigné theatergoers from brief stints at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, have been drawn from a wide range of sources including, besides such playwrights as Shakespeare, Beckett, Chekhov, and Maeterlinck, everything from ancient parable and epic to sociology, anthropology, and even psychiatry.
Brook came to this venturesome range of expressions through a long spiritual evolution of his own, from his beginnings as a standard-make British director of classical revivals and West End commercial ventures. (Not many people recall that his Broadway work included such spirited but thoroughly unspiritual musicals as Irma la Douce and House of Flowers, from the latter of which he was removed after clashes with its star, the late Pearl Bailey.) Up in Morningside Heights, where the phrase “West End” means a popular local bar rather than London’s theater district, he may discover a whole new world of cultural referents—and contentious voices—that’ll expand his spiritual horizons even further. Whether his and his troupe’s presence for a month will heal the Columbia area’s perturbed spirit is a question that remains to be answered after Tierno Bokar arrives.